Category: dicussion

forest sonata

Jim Cotter (Composer, Australian National University) on “What is the music of trees?” – that is on the artist Bartholomäus Traubeck and how he spins “slices of logs on turntables that translate their textures and annual rings into music” –

… a question that relates to one of our topics to be discussed at the conference: how to bring phenomenological experiences (sensory experiences) into classroom…?

visual engineering

what a concept? and what does ‘advanced’ mean? I don’t know how this sounds to you but for me it points to relationships of domination that I would like to see critically engaged with. It certainly is a topic. And it certainly has to be discussed also under our heading of engaging tactics. How far do we go, can we go, in producing and using images for communicating our research? where does engagement give way to manipulation, to ‘engineering people’ through images?…

A conference on: Images and Visualisation: Imaging Technology, Truth and Trust
17-21 September 2012
Norrköping, Sweden

(from the announcement): “Both Leonardo da Vinci and John Constable claimed that painting is a science. This science has been explored extensively in traditional aesthetics and art history. Given recent advances in science and visual engineering, creating images for science, of science and for the translation (interpretation) of science has become at one and the same time commonplace, even easy, and even more scientific.  The aim of this conference is to bring together experts from across the natural and social sciences, with curators, artists, producers and users of images based on advanced visual engineering. By exploring emerging challenges at the interface between advanced visualisation technologies, truth and trust we want to stimulate talk, interaction and collaboration between the arts, humanities and (natural, medical, engineering, computer) sciences, in a context where both science and (visual) art are increasingly converging and, at the same time, disciplinary boundaries still separate those working across them.”

To learn more about this conference go this way.

academic writing

Literary boredom: Academics love a dull read

by Jonathan Wolff, The Guardian, Tuesday 4 September 2007

Why is academic writing so boring? I am impatient by nature, easily irritated, and afflicted with a short attention span. That I ended up in a job where I have to spend half the day blinking my way through artless, contorted prose is a cruel twist of fate. But the upside is that it gives me plenty of opportunity to reflect on why reading academic writing is so often a chore and so rarely a joy. Of course it is one of our more valuable chores. I tell my students that one reads academic work not for the pleasure of the moment but for what one comes away with. But still, a few moments of pleasure from time to time doesn’t seem a lot to ask.

As far as I know there has been little, if any, literary analysis of academic writing. You can just imagine the punch-ups in the common room if there was. But, by chance, I recently read a short piece of literary theory, and, to use one of the two metaphors academics allow themselves, the scales fell from my eyes. (If you are wondering, the other metaphor is deftly deployed in the following: “In this column I shall view academic writing through the prism of literary theory”.)

The writer in question had been given the thankless task of ploughing through a dozen or so narratives of addiction and redemption. You know the sort of thing – “You can’t imagine how low I had sunk until I found the love of a good woman and/or Jesus, and now I am a model for you all.” These works, so it was alleged, were unbearably tedious, largely because they had not understood the basic rule of decent writing.

And, indeed, it appears there is a basic rule, but, because I am, after all, an academic too, I must introduce it to you by means of a distinction. Now, sit up straight and pay attention. We will get nowhere until we have mastered the distinction between the “plot” and the “story”. Actually, I don’t remember which is which, but bear with me. One of them is the basic sequence of events in chronological order. The other is how they are disclosed to the reader. The secret, apparently, is that good writing captures its reader by means of creating a tension between the plot and the story. The reader is shown enough of the narrative sequence to get an impression of what is going on, and to whet their appetite for more, but much is hidden. Suspense is created, and the reader is hooked until it is resolved. But before resolution a skilful writer will have set up another tension to keep the dynamic moving forward and on we go.

A very simple and effective technique. One, indeed, that could be taught at school. Perhaps it was. I probably wasn’t paying attention, particularly if it was taught by means of a narrative sequence lasting more than about 15 minutes. Still, it makes perfect sense to me, and also explains why academic writing is generally so much easier to put down than it is to pick up again.

At least in my subject, we teach students to go sub-zero on the tension scale: to give the game away right from the start. A detective novel written by a good philosophy student would begin: “In this novel I shall show that the butler did it.” The rest will be just filling in the details.

And here lies the rub. Academic writing needs to be ordered, precise, and to make every move explicit. All the work needs to be done on the page rather than in the reader’s head. By contrast, good literature often relies on the unsaid, or the implied or hinted at, rather than the expressed thought. But as we tell our students: you will only get a mark for it if it is written down, however obvious, and however infantile it seems to spell it out. Such discipline applies all the way through as the pressures of writing for peer-reviewed journals are much the same. To call a paper “thorough” is high praise.

Professional academic style, then, is formed early on, and reinforced thereafter. It is rather hard to escape the conclusion that academic writing is boring because academics wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m going to be marked down, though, for not saying that at the start.

· Professor Jonathan Wolff is head of philosophy at University College London. His column appears monthly

the original text can be found here.